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Creative On The Road

from FOOTNOTE 1 — “Route 66: The American Road”

(News came two days ago that Martin Millner, along with George Maharis, one of the two stars of the legendary television series Route 66, has died, at 83. As a young boy, my own introduction to the adventure of road travel and the romance of the route came from the series and the experience of new places and people each week of Milner’s Tod and Maharis’s Buz. It seems the right time, then, to offer this excerpt of my “Route 66: The American Road,” originally published, along with the photography of Julia Dean, in the final issue of the also legendary, documentary journalism magazine DoubleTake, and republished now in the inaugural issue of Footnote: A Literary Journal of History.)

….

When the beaver were depleted, and there was too little left to trap, many of the mountain men who wished to continue to live outside of civilization hired on as guides for the new wagon trains leaving from Missouri for unsettled land. The trappers had found the way, and now, from St. Louis, St. Joseph, and Independence, not only individuals seeking fortune at gold strikes and elsewhere, but whole families seeking new lives were heading west. In the heyday of the Western wagon train, from 1840 to 1860, as many as 500,000 people migrated along the Oregon, California, and Santa Fe trails.

These trails became permanent routes west, but as coordinates on maps and rutted wagon-wheel trails, they were paths for the most intrepid— of which the United States has never had shortage—but not for the ordinary lone individual or family. Phenomena like the Pony Express, and the telegraph that spelled the short-lived Express’ demise, provided the first sense of coast-to-coast communication, but they were not a means of travel.

Only with the driving of that last, golden spike connecting the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroads in 1869, had a means of transportation been established that enabled the free flow of people, without the daunting hardship and risk of wilderness travel, between the nation’s Eastern origins and its Western expansion. It had taken just short of 64 years from the date Lewis and Clark reached their destination across an uncharted wilderness until the completion of the first, fixed, permanent, regular, and safe means of transportation across it. Where once an overland journey would have taken months—it had taken Lewis and Clark twenty— or a journey by ship around Cape Horn weeks, on June 4, 1876, the Transcontinental Express traveled from New York City to San Francisco in 83 hours and 39 minutes.

Before and after the railroad, there was also the stagecoach, for some decades a regular fixture of western commerce and travel. But companies such as the Butterfield Overland Express Company were primarily government- and private -mail haulers and, like Wells Fargo, movers of bank funds. For the nine people crammed into a semi-weekly Celerity coach for the typical twenty-five day, bone-jarring, cold and snowy, or hot, sweaty, and smelly journey from Missouri to California, the fare was around $200, or about $4,000 in today’s money, more or less the price of a one-way ticket on the Concorde SST over its lifespan. If you could afford it, you took the stagecoach before the transcontinental line was completed, or because it went places the railroad didn’t, not to celebrate your individual freedom as an American to travel where you wished.

The railroad, on the other hand, moved thousands, hundreds of thousands—millions. Along with the Homestead Act of 1862, it completed the settlement of the West.

The Homestead Act offered free title to 160 acres—after five years, if you worked the land and improved it. In contrast, the railroads sold the land along their right-of-way, the land they had been granted by the federal government as an incentive to undertake the transcontinental enterprise. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad lives on in the popular historical imagination as one of the great moments in the building of the American nation, and it is certainly that. An extraordinary technical feat and a permanent conquest of nature cannot be denied. But here again, as with every inroad to the West, that tension between the individual and the collective is visible.

An individual picks up from New York, or Philadelphia, or the Ohio River Valley, or even somewhere in Europe, and alone or with his family makes his way finally, by train, to Nebraska, Wyoming, California, or another state, to start afresh. The railroad is available for travel, however, because the government had its grander social and commercial goals, granted land—and its natural resources—to the enterprises commissioned to lay the track, and even subsidized the construction.

The railroad is there to be used because legislators succumbed to wholesale bribery from lobbyists in the form of cash and corporate bonds. It is there because the owners and operators of the Union Pacific Railroad established the shell company, Credit Mobilier—the Enron of its day, owned by the same majority shareholders as the Union Pacific—to which to award the construction contract and bill back the railroad, subsidized by the federal government (and risk-taking private investors), multiple times the actual cost of materials and labor.

Once the Transcontinental Railroad was established, the railroads also went into the business of luring settlers to migrate to the West. They offered reasonable prices for the land, good credit terms to enable purchase, showings of parcels, and even established European offices with representatives to attract additional emigration across the Atlantic. The settlers would populate the land the railroads traversed and help establish the railroad towns that would both service and feed off the railroad. Thus is the goal of a westward expansion fulfilled. Thus does the American mythos of individual initiative and self-determination run up against a contradiction. And that is how it remained for almost 60 more years.

But if our world is anything, it is a world of contradiction. However settlers may have arrived—by someone else’s wagon train, stage coach, or train, or by steamer from another part of the world—whatever corporate hucksterism or nationalistic boosterism had sold them an idea about the circumstances toward which they traveled that was not entirely in accordance with reality (disgruntled natives not entirely glad you’re coming, anyone?), they had made their own choices, determined their own wills, and endured hardships their neighbors would not undertake. They possessed the independence and strength to travel far from unhappy or unsatisfactory conditions that others less daringly abided, and they felt no less individual because they aimed to shape their destinies within a web of relation and influence they could not always see around them.

Perhaps that is why the lone cowboy on his horse, crossing the panhandle, passing among the mesas, a speck on a vast prairie beneath an enormous sky—what so few, in fact, ever were—became our resonant American myth. Nothing is ever how we portray it, but our symbols are what we feel, and we feel for a reason. The cowboy, as we see him, is singular and integrally himself within the natural world. His kindnesses are not mandated, but his own. His cooperation is given, not required. And if he’s of a mind, whenever he’s of a mind, he’ll go his own way. Just point his horse’s head like a compass, and move on.

Yet, how many could really live that dream?

Beginning November 11, 1926, anyone.

And with the affordability of Ford’s Model T—soon to be a fixture on the new Highway 66—the automobile was quickly developing into what it would not take very long to become, the singular and democratic mode of transportation of the 20th century and beyond. Route 66, the first transcontinental interstate highway, was created to serve it.

It is true that in the years before the opening of the route, there had developed the romance of train travel, and the train has its romancers still. Stand in so many small towns across America—a town, say, like Dwight, Illinois, through which Route 66 runs—and watch the train pass through, even now. Listen to its whistle. Hear it “moan mournfully,” as Thomas Wolfe’s Eugene Gant heard it. Far places, it says. Distant lives. The great, wide world. Teasing you with its call. Passing on. For so many who longed for experience, the train’s receding rumble, the lingering whisper of it gone, uttered the great paradox of the nation—that while one might live, it seemed, smack-dab in the middle of it all, one felt stranded so far from everything that was happening. To live in the middle, it turned out, was to reside at the edges. To move to the center meant to travel to the boundaries, because the boundary—the frontier—is where the “other” is, and the other is experience.

….

AJA


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Categories
Creative On The Road

From FOOTNOTE 1: “Place … traveling”

(I thought I might offer here, complete, one of my ten works of poetry, essay, creative nonfiction and documentary journalism in the inaugural issue of Footnote. When I travel, every moment is a flight in the weightlessness of the journey, against the gravity of destinations and origins and belonging.)

Place
traveling

It’s a road, behind and before. I wander it like dust
with wind for a will.

Arizona, now, ranges over mountain and pass
desert brush and Geronimo’s ghost for, once
a watchful youth

while Los Angeles is leaving, spinner and lure
for a hungry eye, hooked, but never caught.
They’re soft winds over those ocean dreams. They blow
they blow.

Soon Oklahoma, the South, Virginia
Michigan, the Northern Plains: the sweep and particular
of country and tale – also a vision. Deep breath and sigh, wide-eyed
I have seen this meadow, that rock, timber of a home long ago
I had always imagined.

Budapest, too, and Buenos Aires, and Asian jungle
whose river snakes to a mountain source, the hidden life
from early springs. Sought a seed, too, where my father
sprang from Galicia, a cold and foreign soil in which to germinate
a Jew. How far, then, back to ramble home? Be gusted over Sinai sands?
Gather in the Great Rift Valley?

Where I come from, every feeling calls a name, every
name a habitation, a place of birth, and all my destinations merge
into me. When the Dutch first spied Manhattan’s breast, and paid
with all the rich corruptions of the heart for every generation crossing
Brooklyn ferry, they opened up a harbor, carried human cargo
the city still unloads. Hudson wandered, too, up Mahicanittuk River
and never arrived beyond it.

AJA


For the remainder of my feature and all of the fine work by many authors at various stages of being given up to history, order your copy of Footnote: a Literary Journal of History.

Paperback $10.99


PDF $3.99


Complete DRM-Free Digital Package $5.99
(PDF, Mobi, ePUB, & jacket art)

 

Categories
On The Road The Political Animal

Penelope’s Last Day

When this blog was in its heyday, Penelope had a featured role on it. Julia photographed her. I wrote about her. Now that I prepare to modestly revive the blog, I feature Penelope one last time.

_MG_1724

Two months ago, after seventeen years, we lost Penelope, an eventuality I anticipated back when I was celebrating her. Julia and I had both put dogs to sleep before, suffered more loss of them than that. We knew the experience. But Penelope, a Shiba Inu mix – Penelope was different. Penelope had surpassed them all. We had loved her brother Homer, gone nearly two years before her, and he had loved us, in his way. We fed and cared for him, petted and kissed him, romped with him and led him on great adventures. He lived to please us.

With Penelope, the far smarter and more temperamental dog, we were in a relationship. And true to her name – and unlike Homer – she had many suitors, but only two people to whom she was faithful. Feisty and fun loving in her prime, and quick to catch the scent of dogs and people she was determined not to care for, Penelope was transformed by great canine age. Once stocky, she had slimmed down, even in her face, and was often on the street, at sixteen and seventeen, mistaken for a puppy, with a puppy’s loving responsiveness. Mostly deaf and blind, we were cheered on those days, very close to the end, when still she showed on downtown walks that pep in her step and nose for the new. Three weeks before the end, after her final bath at Ken’s Barkhaus Mobile Pet Spa, she was looking damned darling.

Pee

During her final months, I would often hold Pee’s face in my palms while we gazed, close, into each other’s eyes. Julia did the same. The naysayers, those who look at a tree and see wood in its prior form, discount canine consciousness and affect. They say that what passed between us and Penolope was not a bond of love independent of any need she felt  that we could fulfill for her. In truth, it was even more. Much of the talk about love is of its human nature. Beyond the romantic or familiar, it is founded in our “common humanity.” But we and Penelope shared no common humanity. There were our distinct sensuous existences in the world, and forms of consciousness that permitted us mutually to experience and appreciate that existence in each other. This experience crossed the boundary that forms commonality and that separates species. There is no name for it yet. Or maybe there is.

On the day we decided we could delay the inevitable no longer, we scheduled the trip to the vet for evening and spent a last day in love with Pee – Penelo-precious, Penelo-perfect, Penelo-puppy. You get the idea: Penelo had become the universal prefix to more adjectives and nouns we ever knew began with P.

Here is a record of the day.

Pee4

Pee 6

Selfie_JD and Pee_sm (2)

Pee 2

Pee3

Penelope at 14

PENELOPE-turns-14

Categories
Creative Culture Clash Indian Country Israel On The Road The Political Animal

Taking Stock, Taking a Leave

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The first post on this blog is dated December 2, 2008, so I have been blogging as of the date of this post, four years, three months and two days. I began when Julia and I hit the road during a sabbatical year, traveling the country in our motor home researching Native American life. In those early days, blogging was about our experiences in Indian Country and the deep, moving joy of road travel. If you feel the strike of an interest, you can go back in the monthly archives or click “On the Road” on the horizontal menu bar and read what it was like when this blog traveled a different path from the one of recent years.

Before that original mission, I had never imagined any interest or conceived an intention to blog. So it was a gradual startlement, of a kind most bloggers experience, at how, as Wallace Stevens once wrote, of a jar upon a hill in Tennessee, “It took dominion every where.” Major events have happened in my life while I blogged, acknowledged and transformed by the blog, as writing transfigures everything. As with other marked experiences in life, there is for me now life before the blog and life since the blog.

I learned over time, again like many other bloggers, that blogs generally cannot be all things to all readers. I tried to mix the original focus with a broader political interest and with rough drafts of some creative work, too. That did not work in building readership, and since I was not treating the blog as a personal journal, I did want it to be read. Political writing drew more readers more quickly, and it was easier to produce, so the sad red earth became, with occasional forays into locales my fancy still would take me, what it has become.

Beyond even those broad political interests, the sad red earth gave increasing attention to Israel. That was never my intention with the blog, either, but while unintentional, it was not accidental. In the area of international affairs, where my political interests predominate, Israel is the focus of many other people’s attention too, exceedingly beyond what its relative circumstances warrant. My concern with that fact might seem obviously based in my being Jewish, and it would be silly of me to deny that element of personal import, but were my concerns based in that personal relation alone, I would be hard pressed to make the case that Israel should matter to everyone. It should matter to everyone not because it matters to Jews, but because its misguided critics and it enemies, masked and outright, have placed it at the very fault line of a civilizational crisis that affects all liberal democracies, and the fissures extending from that fault lead in every political direction. Why Israel matters is a topic about which I will continue to write, with even greater focus and, I hope, clarity.

Now, though, after mostly long periods of daily blogging, or of blogging several times a week during these four plus years, over recent weeks, the frequency of my posts has diminished. I always tended to write not the usual brief or mid-length post, but extended essays, and even knocked out pretty quickly, they consumed a lot of time. This writing has had many benefits. I am a writer, and the past four years have been enormously productive of words, beyond even what is reflected on the sad red earth. But there is much else I want to write, of book length and in other genres, that cannot stand the drain of attention to the blog. I need the time to do that writing. There is, too, life stuff that needs to be unstuffed. The pressure to produce for the blog is not one I wish to accommodate anymore, not for now, anyway.

It is not my thought to give up blogging completely or for good. I have made for myself, if not a megaphone, at least, then, a little bottle for my message, and I plan to float it when the spirit moves: excerpts of and links to what I will publish elsewhere, as well as original posts whenever inspiration and opportunity are cooperative. In not too many days, there will be the spring issue of West and my column on poetry there. Other works in other genres are in other pipelines.

It is time for change. For half my life I didn’t know that I liked it as I do. In the second half of my life, I learned that I need it, feel a calling for it, like the undiscovered country that looms up speeding by through the window of a car, or a motor home or a train, any vehicle that can make a movie of the journey from where you are to where you have never been.

I wish to focus more on my creative work again, including that mix, or that meeting, of the personal with the world-historical forces that both produce and ignore the personal. I want to write some of that parchment that Aureliano II is reading at the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude, when the great hurricane begins to blow – the lived and unlived history of Macondo and its people leading to that moment.

Aureliano skipped eleven pages so as not to lose time with facts he knew only too well, and he began to decipher the instant that he was living, deciphering it as he lived it, prophesying himself in the act of deciphering the last page of the parchments, as if he were looking into a speaking mirror. Then he skipped again to anticipate the predictions and ascertain the date and circumstances of his death. Before reading the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.

AJA

Susana Baca & Javier Lazo

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On The Road The Political Animal

Make Tomorrow

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My previous post represents my appeal to the intellect. This is a different appeal on behalf of that progressive vision of tomorow.

Julia and I lived through 9/11 in Prague. After several days there, we drove to Vienna for a stay, then traveled by train to Budapest. Later we returned to Vienna to pick up our Peugeot and drive through the mountains into Italy and across the North to the Riviera.

In Budapest, in a music store on Váci Street, I picked up a tape by Peter Gabriel of his lesser known Ovo live performance recording. It includes the song below, to which I listened all throughout our drive through the Alps and to Verona. Sometimes during the long hours of driving, Julia would lift her head from my shoulder at my behest to catch a glimpse of Julie Andrews running across a high meadow above. As often, I drove while she slept, staring ahead, my deeply bruised spirits salved by this song.

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On The Road

Wander Lust

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Longtime readers of this blog and the conscientious historians will know how it began. For my last sabbatical year, in 2008, Julia and I bought a thirty-seven foot Class A, Tiffin Allegro Bay motor home (which I named Obelisk), attached a hydraulic lift on which to carry two Yamaha C-3 motor scooters, moved all our belongings into storage, rented out our home, and drove around the country for a year. We spent most of the year visiting Indian reservations and other Native communities as we began researching our book Native Now, on which work continues. The first year of this blog concentrated mostly on our experience of travel and in Indian Country.

Two years earlier, we had driven the length of Route 66 and covered the history of it, in prose and photography, for Doubletake. We’ve driven around a chunk of Europe together and we fly wherever we can get to in the world through the travel workshops of Julia’s school, The Julia Dean Photo Workshops. We have various dreams for the future – North to South from Canada to Patagonia and from China through the Malay Peninsula to Singapore, for instance – and we have made it a tradition always to travel, both far and near, for New Years.

Even earlier, my first trip away from home on my own, with my best friend, at 17, was to fly from New York to California, and hitch hike up the Pacific Coast Highway, making all the scenes from the Sunset Strip and Santa Barbara to Big Sur and Berkeley. In those days, when air travel was still exotic, and treated that way by the airlines, any international airport smelled to me of Alpha Centauri. I longed to go places.

I offer these few highlights just to make the point – I love travel, and the older I get, the more I live for it. When our year on the road was over and other responsibilities called, we needed to sell the Allegro Bay.  I told everyone then, and do still – I’ve never had a clearer feeling in my life – that having to sell the motor home made me feel like a cowboy forced to give up his horse. The freedom to pull up stakes, literally, any moment I chose, and the work of doing it, and then to travel and sink them in again almost anywhere I wanted had become an intoxicant. The music played, the dogs were at our feet, that wide window was a world Cinerama, a constant moving picture, and life felt lived every day, not for any purpose (though, in fact, we had more than one), but just for the wondrous pleasure of living it.

As the years continue in addition and subtraction, I think more about what it is – what it means exactly – to “stay young,” not in any artificial physical or superficial manner, not in self-delusive pretense, but in response to the world. If one is lucky enough not to age too severely or prematurely in body, there is still that weariness of the world that accumulated experience inflicts. When you’ve seen and done it all, you feel, what’s the point?

What occurs to me is that this weariness has two components. One is in the actual blows one takes in life and how they chip away at our resilience and capacity for renewed joy. The other is in the conclusive thinking we do about the nature of experience, based upon our own – however wide it may be – still only individual experience. The generalizations we make about the world and the course of our lives in it – that wisdom we accumulate, like the blows, and sometimes presume to pass on to others – does one thing, certainly, badly. It abstracts. To generalize is to abstract. Good sometimes, bad others. Why meet another human being? Haven’t you met some already? Why another culture, another town, another feature of the earth?

One thing that travel does is stop the abstraction. Every culture and every village you enter, every person you meet who is a product of that culture and village, once you stop abstracting, can surprise you with a new individuality.

There is, for me, no greater joy than driving down a road and knowing that the town rising up ahead of me, the street, that building with its history unknown, that clump of earth with a chip of stone on it is one I have never seen before, never before a part of my world, until now.

All of this is by way of introduction to Gunther Holtorf’s 23 Year Road Trip, a trip that did not begin until he was in his 50s. Gunther Holtorf – today’s inductee into the Wanderluster’s Hall of Fame. (H/T Dan at Smogranch)

AJA

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Indian Country On The Road

A Lost Covenant

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Among all the Native tribes of North America to whom sacred bundles were part of their spiritual tradition, there was none to whom the bundles and the ceremonial prayers that accompanied them were more central than the Pawnee. According to the Kansas Historical Society,

Sacred bundles were a powerful part of Pawnee ceremonies linked to planting and harvesting. They contained tools necessary to those ceremonies, and the rituals and ceremonies associated with them were passed from generation to generation along with the bundles. Bundles were owned by women and inherited through the female line, but could be used by men only. To open or use a bundle without the proper ritual and ceremony invited disaster.

Some bundles were particular to a clan or even a family, and the ritual and prayer associated remained unknown even to other Pawnee outside that group. One of the most profound expressions, then, of the disruption of Native cultures specifically sought and caused by the European conquest and the United States government’s policies was the separation of American Indian generations from the knowledge of how to use the bundles. Pawnee taken from the tribal community and sent to American Indian boarding schools did not receive the transmission from  their elders of the secret knowledge necessary to perform the ceremonies connected with individual bundles. Most existent Pawnee sacred bundles are held in the collections of various museums, such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The Pawnee actually prefer this arrangement, since they no longer possess the knowledge to use the bundles and know the bundles will receive the appropriate preservation at the museums.

Yesterday I visited the Pawnee Indian Museum State Historic Site near Republic, Kansas, at the location of what was a Pawnee village estimated by archaeologists to have been occupied between 1790 and about 1809. Our group traveled there with Pat Leading Fox, head Nasharo Chief of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. Chief Leading Fox shared with us the story of one particular bundle, recounted also at the Kansas Historical Society site. It is the story of Massacre Canyon, the last significant battle between two American Indian tribes, in 1873, the details gathered and recounted by Indian agent John W. Williamson, who had accompanied the Pawnee on what turned out to be their last seasonal buffalo hunt.

A thousand Sioux warriors swarmed around the band of four hundred Pawnee men, women, and children. Even with the added protection of the canyon into which they had fled, the Pawnees were overwhelmed. Their hunting bows were no match for Sioux rifles.

The Pawnees had been returning from the summer buffalo hunt when they were attacked by their traditional enemies, the Sioux. It was an August day, probably a hot one, in 1873 and their earth lodges on the Loup River in central Nebraska still lay a week’s journey to the northeast. Their horses were loaded down with buffalo meat. Prospects were bright until they were shattered by the one-sided fight at “Massacre Canyon.”

In the heat of battle, a Pawnee father lashed his five-year-old daughter to his horse, slipped a treasured peace medal around her neck, and bound his sacred bundle to her back. “Take care of this bundle and it will take care of you,” he said as he smacked the horse, sending the little girl to safety through the enemy ranks. Perhaps the bundle did take care of her, for she was among the few Pawnees to survive that day.

Following the attack by the Sioux, young Sadie found her way back to her village. Other survivors straggled in but her parents were not among them; they had been killed. Heeding her father’s admonition, Sadie took care of the sacred bundle and later passed it down to her own daughter as was the Pawnee custom. Tragically, the ritual use of the bundle was lost with her father because only he knew the proper ceremonies.

Before she died in 1971, Sadie’s daughter, Dolly, willed the sacred bundle to the historical society, for preservation in the Pawnee Earth Lodge that has been uncovered and enclosed at the historic site.

That bundle was x-rayed to identify its contents. Carefully wrapped in bison hide, the bundle contains ceremonial objects tied on the outside. These items include a long smoking pipe, arrow fragments, a meat fork tipped with a raccoon bone, and small American flags. The x-ray revealed that the inside contains stuffed bird bundles, hawk bells, counting sticks, and glass beads sewn on a leather strip.

It hangs, at about 25 lbs, in a glass case within the lodge. It may not be photographed. Since no one since haS known the proper ceremony to perform, the bundle has not been opened since the spring planting ceremony before the massacre, since the day Sadie rode out tied to a horse, the sacred bundle tied to her back, under fire from the Sioux in 1873.

AJA

 

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On The Road

Ecuador at Your Service

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We turn from yesterday’s Semitic to today’s sublime. (Yes, a redundancy, but some things require emphatic repetition.) Some of you may recall that your proprietor traveled to Ecuador in late January. (And why would you not remember? We are friendly people here on the sad red earth, deserving of some remembrance, no? Yes? Please?) We visited dear friend Ashley who last year expatriated herself to Cuenca, second capital of the Quechua (Inca) empire, old colonial city, yet increasingly fashionable modern center of the arts and good living 8000 feet up in the Andes. So in love did we fall, that Julia will be leading a travel photo workshop there in January 2013. I will tag along to make a pest of myself. The photographers among you can stay posted on those developments at The Julia Dean Photo Workshops.

Meanwhile, Ashley (Rogers) and her business partner, the divine Michel Blanchard, have achieved quick success heading up a wide-ranging Ecuadorean travel concierge service called Ecuador At Your Service. From short to long term travel, individually and in groups, research and reservations to real estate services for prospective expats, they are your people. You can hear them, too, on their weekly radio show on the Overseas Radio Network. Now, their latest offering is a design service, Ecuador Interiors. Pictured below is the loft space designed and decorated by the two for a colonial conversion in the heart of downtown Cuenca.

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On The Road

Penelope in Charge

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I’m still taken away by the first weeks of a heavy teaching load this semester, so I thought I’d take a moment, then, to honor the day – Penelope‘s 14th birtday, on February 14th, Valentine’s Day.

If you don’t know Penelope, more’s the loss, but here’s a chance to get aquainted. I wrote about about her once before, almost three years ago, when Julia and I were on the road traveling the country. In honor of Penelope’s birthday, a rerun. From October 2009. It can’t all be about politics and the fate of the world, you know.

Penelope

Penelope came with a house. We were renting from a friend and part of the deal was that if the friend rented to us, we had to take her dog. We already had Homer, a big lug of a part-Shepherd mutt, smart because obediently eager to please, but otherwise a very dopey beta. I didn’t really want Penelope. I’d convinced Julia to agree to a second dog – having two, I knew from experience, triples the reward – but I’ve preferred to raise them from puppyhood, and Penelope was already two. I was like a prospective parent wanting to produce his biologically own rather than adopt. But Julia wanted Penelope. We had, in fact, known her as a puppy. I agreed.

Peneope_Wilcox

We changed Penelope’s name from the original because Homer needed his faithful companion, and as it turned out, his mother, his boss. They fell in love the moment they met, instantly play-fighting with each other as they still do nine years later, and as they do with no other dog.

You never know the extent of a creature’s capacity for love until you experience it. I include the human. It was true that Penelope was moody, as had been her former owner. She is inclined toward dark, enclosed, womb-like spaces. Once, in those early months, I lost her for hours before discovering her habit of retreating to the crawl space beneath the house. Otherwise, however, she did what dogs do among their humans. There was no reason to believe that she was not already ours. But one evening while Julia and I sat on the sofa watching television, Penelope did an extraordinary thing. In an act of exuberance as yet unseen, she suddenly leapt onto an arm of the sofa, then jumped onto the top of the backrest behind our heads, and proceeded to attack our heads. She licked us frantically all over our tops, moving in rapid fashion from Julia to me and back again, licking hair and flesh, and when we turned our heads up to her to see and grasp what was happening, lathered our faces with her tongue as if the precious supply of us might run out.Bound for Mobile

That was the day. Until then she had allowed us to care for her. What choice had she? But as of that night, she told us, she was fond of having us around. Homer loves the one he’s with who strokes him. If we hadn’t fixed him, he’d star in HBO’s canine Californication. But Penelope’s love is true, and it is for us.

Homer and Penelope are city dogs. Unlike other dogs we’ve had, before this past year these two had seen none of the country. This year, though, Homer and Penelope sniffed America and found it pungent and varied, worth a lifetime to nose around in. The fifty states, they now know, are states of aromatic intoxication.

We already knew that Penelope had a bent to hunt down critters. She’d ferret out mice from deep in the backyard vine. She’d leave at the backdoor for us to find a baby possum or two who hadn’t played their names well enough. Several months ago, though – that late along in our life with Pee (or PenelePerson, the names go on) – on the banks of the Mississippi, I was talking with a fellow traveler, and offered up my usual speculations on Penelope’s muttigree, including Akita. Oh, no, said the Missourian, who knew her dogs better than I, She’s Shiba Inu. Not all, but mostly. Check it out online.

And so I did. And so she is. The Shiba Inu is a Japanese dog, a smaller cousin of the Akita. It is one of the oldest breeds, genetically traceable to the third century BCE. Shiba’s are extremely smart and talkative – and they were bred to hunt small animals out of brush and shrubs. They have a driving attraction toward prey. This is Penelope.

Though Penelope is eleven and a half now, this year has made her three again. When we walk her in woodland, up hills, across gullies and dry creeks, passing over leaf, branch and all the detritus of forest floor, she is a wound spring unsprung. Slowing down at home, on the road now she is reborn. Nose to the ground, turning in an instant, heading this direction, heading that, picking up a scent, catching a new one, on a mission, always on a track to something, she is unstoppable. She runs deep into the woods after athe-nature-of-thingssquirrel, a rabbit, out of site, reappears, as I continue on my walk, somewhere along the way, finding the path back to me, but still seeking, running and seeking, her face alight with the pure pleasure of her being. Her being, in this moment, is to pursue, and that takes her to the next moment, after which there is nothing, only the now and the next, which is now again.

How to be in the now – I tried to write about it in “A Stone in Water.” In that poem, however, I considered the moment as stillness, as stasis, followed by the next unmoving moment. It was Zeno’s arrow, arrested in flight. Dog lovers know the Zen of Dog is different, maybe better. So tells us Mark Doty, in “Golden Retrievals.”

 

Fetch? Balls and sticks capture my attention
seconds at a time. Catch? I don’t think so.
Bunny, tumbling leaf, a squirrel who’s — oh
joy — actually scared. Sniff the wind, then 
I’m off again: muck, pond, ditch, residue
of any thrillingly dead thing. And you?
Either you’re sunk in the past, half our walk,
thinking of what you can never bring back,

or else you’re off in some fog concerning
– tomorrow, is that what you call it? My work:
to unsnare time’s warp (and woof!), retrieving,
my haze-headed friend, you. This shining bark,

a Zen master’s bronzy gong, calls you here,
entirely, now: bow-wow, bow-wow, bow-wow.

 

And so we press on through the trees, beside a lake, in direction of a meadow, Penelope ahead in flight, bounding, with her, all care away. Along the line of our march there is no regret, no aspiration beyond the apogee of the sun, no ambition thwarted but that of never to stop. When, some year not far off, she is gone from us – if not literally, then in bone and tissue, she will have left in stride, at every instant in the now and hunting the next, living, in the fullness and pleasure of what she was meant to be, the now of the next, in pursuit and in progress, aloft and alive.

AJA
Photography by Julia Dean

English 103 Syllabus

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On The Road

El viajar en Ecuador

.

Making our way through the Andes, writing and connecting as I can. Preparing some posts for the coming days.

Mountains and clouds – always a road to wonder.

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On The Road

Letter from Paris: a Lump in the Throat

Yesterday’s Jazz Is entry, a Dexter Gordon film rendition of “Body and Soul,” put me in mind, for a reason you will soon understand that number always now does, of an another experience of the jazz standard.

Manhattan Bridge Tower in Brooklyn, New York C...
Image by The U.S. National Archives via Flickr

It was September 2001, and I was beginning a sabbatical year with a month-long drive around Europe. Julia and I had leased a Peugeot, which we picked up at Charles de Gaulle and drove into Paris. I was happy, as we entered the city, to find my youthful New York City cabbie skills tested and up to the task. (On a later occasion, l’etoile, at the Arc de Triomphe, was the inescapable Godzilla of my driving nightmares.) From Paris we would drive through Germany to Prague, then to Vienna, Budapest and back, on across Italy to the Riviera, and then to St. Remy de Provence, where we stopped for Julia to teach a photo  workshop. Leaving Julia there, I proceeded to Normandy on my own and a visit to the D-day landing beaches and the Bayeux Tapestry. We met back up in Paris for more time there before flying home.

We spent that first day, however, sleeping off a sleepless flight at our loaner apartment in Le Marais, just across the street from the Picasso Museum. Come the evening, we awoke groggily to join friend Brian for a first dinner out on my first trip to Paris.

The next morning, I sent the second of my “Letters from…” to an email list I regaled over the next month with details of our travels and experiences. I reproduce it below, with its original subject line.

Bridge of Arts (just behind : New Bridge)
Image via Wikipedia

Renowned Photographer Saves Obscure Writer’s Life in Parisian Café

August vacation just over, the streets of Paris are full and lively.  The evening is pleasant, the night sky clear, and the beef chewy. The Obscure Writer and the Renowned Photographer have met up with the Photographers’ Assistant, who is just completing his own two months on the continent shooting photographs and studying French.  They walk the tres chic Marais district, including Paris’s gay area (rainbow flags on facades as identifiers) and old Jewish quarter (kosher pizza) and fail to draw a connection.  They stop to gaze at the immense and glowing Hôtel de Ville.

As they cross the Seine, the Obscure Writer marvels at this first sighting.  The water flows darkly luminous with reflected light, the beam atop the distant Tour Eiffel searching in all directions, the quays lonely and, yes, romantic, the city opening up in its middle to suggest its sweeping and historic expanse.  The Obscure Writer grudgingly considers that if New York is the center of the universe, it might not be historically so, for here, near Point Zéro on the Ile de la Cité (from which all distances in France are measured) one can sense armies departing or arriving to conquer, heads rolling in pursuit of, and flight from, liberty, the destiny of nations and a continent determined over several centuries.

Passing the massive Notre-Dame Cathedral (to be explored another day), the three enter the Latin Quarter, near Saint-Germain des Prés.  Hunger and proximity more than any special attraction lead them into Le Be Bop café, where photos of jazz greats clutter the walls of an establishment otherwise uncharacteristically pristine and bright.  A sole piano player keys decorous versions of jazz standards.  Far from be boppy, the air is quiet and sedate.

The meals are in progress, a bottle of St. Emillion well under attack, when the Obscure Writer, as he is sometimes prone to do, and just as the piano player begins his consideration of “Body and Soul,” bites off a bit more than he can chew.  Not, in fact, properly chewed, the less than tender beef slips into the throat prematurely, and the Obscure Writer determines, as he has on countless previous occasions, to muscle this injudiciousness down before proceeding more wisely.  Only this time he can’t, and now the difficult piece is too far down to push back up.  It is stuck, the throat completely blocked.  The Obscure Writer cannot breathe and he is, he quickly realizes, if nothing is done, and done quickly, about to choke to death.

The Renowned Photographer and the Photographers’ Assistant, involved in conversation, suddenly notice the Obscure Writer’s gagging discomfort.  Still unaware of the full seriousness of the situation, the Photographers’ Assistant instructs the Obscure Writer to raise both of his arms.  He does, and the restaurant’s other patrons search in vain for the man with the gun.  But this procedure is futile.  The Obscure Writer, panicked but clear of mind, knows he has about fifteen or twenty seconds of consciousness left.  If no one knows what to do in that time, he is probably lost.  He stands and tries to speak the words “Heimlich maneuver,” but without breath cannot make a sound.  He gags.  He punches with a fist at the “V” of his rib cage.  His head feels about to explode.  The Renowned Photographer is now fully alarmed, looks to the Photographers’ Assistant for action, as she often does.  The Obscure Writer, his desperation at its peak, turns his back to them, trying again to hint at the Heimlich maneuver.  He feels a hand smack him twice on the back.  The Obscure Writer shakes his head no, locks his hands and hugs the air in front of him to show the maneuver.  Only seconds remain.  Now the Renowned Photographer understands, senses there is not enough time to allow the Photographers’ Assistant around her to perform the maneuver she feels uncertain of.  She throws her arms around the Obscure Writer and pulls against his stomach.  The Obscure Writer, bent forward from the force of the hug, feels, suddenly, about to vomit.  But he does not vomit. Up instead comes the sole, large piece of offending, viscous beef, a projectile arcing through the air, remarkably, into the palm the Obscure Writer inexplicably stretches out for the catch.  He spins and dumps the piece of  meat on his plate, gasps painfully and with relief for air.  He gulps down wine.  He gulps down water.  For minutes after he convulses and shakes inside.

Meanwhile, the restaurant staff and patrons have discretely ignored the entire proceeding.  The piano player has kept on playing, committing body to soul.  And our three diners begin a joking reminiscence of the present quickly become past.  Had the Obscure Writer found French cultural eminence more than he could swallow?  How does he feel about the Renowned Photographer, of whom he is, reportedly, inordinately fond, having saved his life?  He is, he confesses, all choked about it.

***

Nine days later, on a brilliant Prague afternoon, after a morning of ambling and discovery joyous beyond the usual reasons, our waiter at an Old Town Square cafe, using his hands to simulate the planes over our latte and Coke, then sweeping the space clean, told us that the World Trade Center was “no more.”

AJA

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On The Road The Political Animal

Why We Need Unions #351

I’m in activist mode this week. Later, next week, I’ll offer some deeper reflections. But a curious result of all the activist tweeting I’ve been doing through the week has been the response from conservatives. Mostly, my tweets are retweeted by the generally liberal like-minded. My tweets on the Wisconsin labor standoff, though, making their way through conservative tweet streams, are drawing antagonistic replies. No doubt, in part, it’s because they think they smell blood: unions finally on the ropes. I think it’s a sign, too, though, of how much conservatives and libertarians hate unions. So in my most recent not always kindest self (on this issue) response to the most recent antagonist, unmoved by employees fired by tyrannical bosses, I managed to boil one essential need for unions down to its essence.

“No, actually, I think we need unions because of you,” I tweeted.

At that later point of reflection I’ll write about positions on unions so often being argumentative conclusions predetermined by the political philosophy that seeks to justify those conclusions rather than the end of any genuine thinking. But here is an example, again, from a recent tweet exchange.

Some conservative momma grizzly with a blog and a proud obstreperous attitude – “deal with it” – waded ashore from one of the #tcot streams to say that she’d be more impressed about arguments in favor of unions if liberals had “a clue.” Collective bargaining, she wrote, is not a “right.”

I responded by asking what she meant by “right.”

MG apparently meant legal right. I explained that the reason WI Gov. Walker needs legislation to eliminate collective bargaining for public sector unions is that it is now a legal right. As the National Labor Relations (Wagner) act legalized this right for private sector unions, over several decades individual state laws, (sometime called mini-Wagners) legalized these rights on the state level and for state and other public sector employees. While MG continued to call me a “moonbat” and in her other tweets casually dismiss liberals as emotional, illogical, non-fact-based non-thinkers (the logic of the need for legislation to end collective bargaining “rights” having escaped her), I provided her with a link. It is the Wisconsin State Journal providing a mini-lesson in Wisconsin state labor history.

MG’s tweet stream went silent for about twenty minutes. One might hope she was reading. I never heard back from her, but after the silence she was back to yucking it up with her #tcot pals about what dolts and slacker liberals and union workers are.

Anyone can be wrong, In MG’s case, though, it didn’t matter, because she will believe what she wishes to believe. It is, as they say, a free country. She can believe what she wants. But I wouldn’t want her to be my boss, and if she were, I’d want some united power against her.

Now back to the Los Angeles rally in support of Wisconsin and all labor rights.

AJA

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Culture Clash On The Road Photography The Political Animal

Politics and Art

Vladimir Nabokov did not like the novel of ideas. Artists often have their idiosyncratic dislikes, contrary expressions of the unique aesthetic vision that drives their own work. Particularly, Nabokov did not like the work of those monuments of great-idea novels, Dostoyevsky and Mann, though there is no reason his distaste should have excluded the novels of Camus, say, or those of Malraux, like Man’s Fate, which is, also, a political novel. I’m wary of this kind of work too, though I love all of the above mentioned, which rise greatly above the limitations of their conception. I’m especially wary of political art because political art tends to be long on the political and short on the art, and if what I really wanted was political opining, I would read a blog post. Political expression is polemical and polemics is usually the death of art.

Nabokov offered good reason for his distaste. By ideas he meant

general ideas, the big, sincere ideas which permeate the so-called great novel, and which, in the inevitable long run, amount to bloated topicalities stranded like dead whales.

He himself preferred, evident in his own work,

the specific detail to the generalization, images to ideas, obscure facts to dear symbols, and the discovered wild fruit to the synthetic jam.

Any creative writing class will teach this.

Political art that seeks to transcend the mere, sentimental “boo” or “yea” is a specific type of the work of big ideas, and in seeking to ascend to the intellectual ether, it generally leaves human particularity behind. “Not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself,” Wallace Stevens wrote. “No ideas but in things,” said William Carlos Williams.

Here is an especially bold, exemplary contrast below.

When James Agee and Walker Evans produced their landmark work on the lives of three Alabama sharecropping families, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, they famously presented the prose and images separately, not interspersed, and Agee informed in the preface that the photos were not intended as illustrative of the text. Further, after extended amounts of seeming throat-clearing about the nature of the project and the human and moral complexity of inserting oneself professionally and journalistically into the lives of an “appallingly damaged group of human beings,” Agee went on to produce prose that, at an extraordinary level of particularity, presented a verbal equivalent of photographic realism, but going beyond the photograph, as the human sensibility can do in words, to attempt to capture the texture of objects and even the multifarious contributors to the odor of a tenant shack, or the smell of his own blood from a crushed bed bug .

In the preface, Agee wrote,

The nominal subject is North American cotton tenantry as examined in the daily living of three representative white tenant families.

Actually, the effort is to recognize the stature of a portion of unimagined existence, and to contrive techniques proper to its recording, communication, analysis, and defense. More essentially, this is an independent inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity.

The immediate instruments are two: the motionless camera, and the printed word. The governing instrument – which is also one of the centers of the subject – is individual, anti-authoritative human consciousness.

Ultimately, it is intended that this record and analysis be exhaustive, with no detail, however trivial it may seem, left untouched, no relevancy avoided, which lies within the power of remembrance to maintain, of the intelligence to perceive, and of the spirit to persist in.

… If complications arise, that is because [the authors] are trying to deal with it not as journalists, sociologists, politicians, entertainers, humanitarians, priests, or artists, but seriously.

The photographs are not illustrative. They, and the text, are coequal, mutually independent, and fully collaborative. By their fewness, and by the impotence of the reader’s eye, this will be misunderstood by most of that minority which does not wholly ignore it. In the interests, however, of the history and future of photography, that risk seems irrelevant, and this flat statement necessary.

The text was written with reading aloud in mind. That cannot be recommended; but it is suggested that the reader attend with his ear to what he takes off the page: for variations of tone, pace, shape, and dynamics are here particularly unavailable to the eye alone, and with their loss, a good deal of meaning escapes.

….

This is a book only by necessity. More seriously, it is an effort in human actuality, in which the reader is no less centrally involved than the authors and those of whom they tell.

(Emphasis added)

In the vaguest manner of speaking, any true work of art is a political statement, but Famous Men, through its subject, and in the reverence of its authors for their subjects, is both much more political than vaguely so, yet not remotely political in the manner to which Nabokov might object.

Agee is both febrile and puckish in his multiple hems and haws by way of beginning, and this is his most provocative guttural clearance, as epigraph:

Workers of the world, unite and fight. You have
nothing to lose but your chains, and a world to win.

However, he footnotes this quote from the Communist Manifesto so:

These words are quoted here to mislead those who will be misled by them. They mean, not what the reader may care to think they mean, but what they say. They are not dealt with directly in this volume; but it is essential that they be used here, for in the pattern of the work as a whole, they are, in the sonata form, the second theme; the poetry facing them is the first. In view of the average reader’s tendency to label, and of topical dangers to which any man, whether honest, or intelligent, or subtle, is at present liable, it may be well to make the explicit statement that neither these words nor the authors are the property of any political party, faith, or faction.

Not the property of any political party, faith, or faction. Then what?

Walker Evans: Sharecroppers Family - Hale County, Alabama 1936

This is the book’s dedication.

To those of whom the record is made.
In gratefulness and in love.

Those are the politics of the book, in detailed confrontation with “certain normal predicaments of human divinity.”

In contrast, we offer Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a resurgent libertarian-conservative favorite and a “dead whale” of a book, concerned only, in its grandiose fantasy, with a different level of existence, where “the lowly and invincible of the earth” are merely clots of soil thrown from the wheel ruts, and dedicated, rather, to the egoism of a different conception of “human divinity.”

AJA

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On The Road Photography The Political Animal

How We Lived on It (34) – Pierre Gleizes and Greenpeace

Photographer Pierre Gleizes has worked for Greepeace for three of the four decades the environmental campaigning organization has been in existence. He has shot some of the organization’s most striking and well-known images. This year, Greenpeace turns forty. This video offers the photographer’s thoughts on his long career as journalist and activist.

Follow Greenpeace Video on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/GreenpeaceVideo.

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Creative On The Road

Who

Arriving home from an evening out a few weeks ago, I sat down at the computer for one last check of email, Facebook, Twitter, all the disparate and convergent paths of communication. I discovered an email that made me cry out. (How soon, already, in resemblance to a long-form letter of lore seems an email to a Facebook message, a tweet, an IM, a Like.)

“Is this you?” it read. “My wonderful friend that I moved from Virginia to NY to work with?  You fell off the face of the earth after I moved back to Virginia.”

I read the words in the wonder of life coming back to me. It was B, after twenty-five years. From so many corners these years, the threads of my life fall at my feet. It took only minutes to write back and say, yes, I am the friend. (“Wonderful” has had its dissenters.)

Increasingly, this happens. From all the distant skies, the birds are calling in flight, waiting for a cry of return. Are you still there? Where? How can I find you?

B had been my assistant – not my number two, but my right arm – when I was an executive in the air courier business. She was the first hire I made after my boss was fired and I was told the same morning that I was now promoted to take his place. I could rely on her for anything, she performed every job meticulously, and she gave me the loyalty, through all the battles of corporate warfare, of a true friend. To have had a B in your life is to have at least once been lucky.

In the 1970s and early 80s, the air courier business, in the excitement and the startup creation, was a little like Silicon Valley two decades later, except the field was not high profile, the billions were millions, and only relatively few became modestly wealthy, or in a handful of cases, more. But there was the exotic allure of international travel and shipping; the compelling attraction of solving, often by the seats of pants already in motion, varied logistical problems, and the hordes of young people in their twenties, mostly male, who rose quickly through the ranks, often to leave to helm their own new companies. Fedex, still Federal Express, had not yet turned a profit. DHL was steeped in the mysteriousness of its origins and ownership.

Part of the excitement was that we were all making it up as we went along. Today, expedited delivery and inventory control logistics are highly professionalized and mathematically systematized activities. In the Seventies, we were cowboys. Today, we have fax machines, email, word-processed documents, uploads, downloads, attachments, imaging. Then, we had telephones and telex machines. If it needed to go somewhere, it went there physically. A contract to a guy fishing in the Alaska wildnerness? A solar panel to Dusseldorf (lost for a month in a warehouse in Marseille)? A rock star’s (male) hairspray to Marrakesh? Sure, we’ll do it. (How are we doing it?)

That first Friday as head of what was then an international department, I told a major client we could get him Sunday delivery in Trinidad. Sunday. In Trinidad. And we didn’t have an agent in Trinidad. But I wasn’t going to mark my first week in charge by telling a major customer no. I didn’t leave the office Friday night or all day Saturday. The phone bill alone lost us money on the job, but I found an agent in Port-of-Spain who understood the demanding nature of American business and who had close contacts in customs. Package delivered. I was on my way. I was 26.

But to where?

I had never wanted to be in business. That wasn’t me. Me, just two or three years earlier – dropped-out of college twice, kicked-out finally – was unemployed and boarding dogs in my Manhattan apartment for extra money. I would walk the city streets, sit in the parks and sink into the hours, vibrating, I felt in my stillness, with the quick atomic motion of the world at rest. If, along the way, in some required contact of daily life, man or woman spoke to me, what came back in return, pressed though the vise of my inwardness, was a croak in the guise of a voice. Once, on a late fall day, I entered the St. Marks Cinema in the East Village and sat through a triple bill of Last Year at Marienbad, La Strada, and La guerre est finie. I emerged six and a half hours later into a chill, melancholy night, driven so deeply into interiority I thought I might never speak again.

Now I was sitting executively behind a wall on a restaurant patio in Las Mercedes, eating my first rabbit and first turtle soup, talking to the man whose company was about to become our new agent in Caracas, and I’m telling him I’m glad he’s lived in the U.S. and understands the demands of American business, and it’s great that his son is going to West Point, but I’ve heard this before, and if six months from now the promised second morning deliveries start becoming afternoon and third morning, I’m going to have to terminate the agreement. (And I did.)

I had flown in a couple of nights before with a dozen boxes or so of medical brochures. They needed on-board accompaniment, I had an idea, and the company president said, sure, go find us a better agent. I had booked a hotel on the coast, in La Guaira, not that far from the airport, thinking the companies I needed to visit would be headquartered in that area, but as it transpired I had to travel by taxi multiple times through the northern mountains that separate Caracas from the coast. The humidity was so thick I changed perspiration-soaked clothes three or four times a day, and during the slow climbs up the mountain highway, stuck interminably behind huge lorries freighted with timber and the same carga larga sign behind them all, I could peer closely through the huge needles of moisture that seemed to hang suspended in the air, study the tin shacks that climbed the mountain sides to the top, housing the city’s poor. They are there still today, home to the Chavezistas. No wonder, I thought, nothing gets delivered on time. It’s an effort to move. Here, sit down. Have a cool drink. Let’s talk a little. It’ll still be there when we’re done.

It is curious how feeling the body more closely, the atmosphere pressing on it, leads to a sharper awareness of its opposite, the formless self the body contains. What was I doing there? Who was I fooling? Everyone, clearly, but myself. I had arrived at National Airport, outside of D.C., for my connecting flight to Miami, only to discover – B. still handling customers and not yet taking care of me – that I had forgotten my passport. On a morning flight the next day, I managed to make the same flight to Caracas. No one needed to know. When I counted up the boxes in the hotel lobby, the cab driver already gone, I found them one short. Now I walked along the coastal highway – he worked the airport and the airport hotels – surely I would see him going one way, returning the other. Come night, I hired another taxi to take me back to the airport. I scanned the line of cabs. I saw him. He saw me. Yes, yes. He had looked for me. He didn’t know my name, my room.

Executive? I couldn’t make a courier delivery without fucking up. But no one had needed to know in either case. If you are only an imposter to yourself, you are in on your own secret. But it was my secret and I did know it, and the sense of otherness enveloping me was only greater, as it so often is, for the foreign locale and my skin crawling with the press of the world upon it. I had to get out, had to walk, to feel space around me, a breeze, any kind of breeze. All around in the darkness along the coastal road, the side streets, I saw figures, caught the tail of furtive movements. I began to conceive the story I would write when home again. A foreigner – always a foreigner – mistaken for someone else. I needed a circumstance to represent this profound  dislocation of identity I felt – a first time homosexual encounter, I imagined, anonymous figures in the dark, a Columbian, in fact, mistaking an unspeaking American, beating him in the shadows, kicking him, spitting out in his contemptuous dismissal, “Venizolano,” the title I gave the story.

Home again, my car gave out. I went to the man who now would be called the head of Human Resources, JD, a huge, rolling, born-again Christian, deeply southern, deeply country, a former good ‘ole boy with a broad blast of white hair and heart wide enough to make every up and-coming young male, every tender female in the company his ward. He took me to the president, who listened.

“Oh, what the hell,” he said, “Give him a car.”

JD told me to find what I wanted on any lot, come back and tell him, and he would work out the lease. Most of the other young directors of operations and VPs of sales were driving Gran Prix’s. That wasn’t what I wanted. Short of an Alfa Romeo, I wanted a 280ZX.  The thing was, the Grand Prix, in 1979 dollars, went for eight thousand dollars. The ZX was twelve.

I reported back to JD.

“Boy!” he bellowed and drawled in a diphthong that had at least three syllables to it – “Boyahhhuh! You got to be SHITTIN’ me! You picked out a twelve thousand dollar car?!”

I was already well into feeling my savoir faire, but I stammered before JD.

“You GOT to be shittin’ me!”

But he hadn’t given me any limit.

Now he gave me the car.

All the young peacocks were stylin’ as they’d say twenty years later. London Fog. Fedoras. Cigars. I went for three piece suits, a brown Borsalino, my ZX. By the time we moved what was now an international division up to New York, near JFK – B. and my number two coming with me – I was living the high life, working endless hours, playing the rest, tooling around town: wine after wine at dinner, taking the measure of every vodka and brandy at The Odeon. CW, ten years my senior, who had bought in as a third, minority owner to lend his international expertise, was now the chief executive of a independent international subsidiary, while I was the chief operating officer. He and I spent late nights at his favorite riverside haunts on the Queens side, bent noses and soaring tenors at tableside. Every Friday we picked an Italian restaurant on the Island for an extended lunch: a couple of cocktails, a bottle or two of wine – the Borolo’s not big enough; let’s try  an Inferno – and we’d saunter into the office cool as two guys who didn’t know they were walking distilleries not pulling it off. In the meantime we were expanding around the world, our own offices in Australia, Brazil, joint ventures in England and France.

In 1980, a still young HBO raised our profile even higher. While NBC would broadcast the big name matches from Wimbledon, as usual, HBO would carry the secondary matches.

Satellite?

No.

Each morning, we flew videotape of the previous day’s matches from London to New York. There was only one way to make the time constraints, though: the Concorde, with an on board courier. This was much too big to let anyone else handle. I set it up myself. And just to be sure there were no kinks in the system, you understand, I made myself the first courier. I enjoyed a few days of Wimbledon (but saw the classic McEnroe loss to Borg from my Murray Hill living room) and flew the Concorde home, with a 9 a.m. London departure, a 9:30 a.m. arrival at JFK, a car to rush the tape to Manhattan, and a full day at the office.

On the plane, it was poached Scotch salmon, champagne, cigars, and brandy from take off to landing. My seatmate perused his leather bound portfolio of Rolls Royces with me. Somewhere in flight, we approached twice the speed of sound. I stared hard out the window. Instead of the usual cruising altitude somewhere in the thirty thousands of feet, we were soaring at fifty-seven thousand. The atmosphere, very rarified, was darkening. The earth was curving. I was very high.

Just short of a year later, B., not much of a New York girl, decided to return to Virginia and soon look for work elsewhere. I wrote a letter of reference intended to ensure employment through any future life. A day that I always knew was coming began to approach in my mind. Then I was made an offer.

My counterpart for the parent company, younger brother of one of the two original owners, was leaving the company. They wanted me to take his place. In the hierarchy of the company, there would be the three owners, and then there would be me. Of course there was much more money. The probable future was clear. It was Friday afternoon.

I spent the weekend at home. I had a long talk with my brother. If I accepted the promotion, it was very likely that by forty, if not before, I would be a wealthy man. I would be a very unhappy, wealthy man. I was struck that I even contemplated it. The brooding young man who had taken a customer service job with another company for $150 a week just three and a half years earlier would not have thought about it for a moment. For a weekend, however, the twenty-nine year old did. Because it had been a hell of a ride. It had enabled me, in fact, not long before, to leverage a real estate investment into a four thousand percent profit in two years. So I had options.

On Monday morning, I walked into CW’s office, and I resigned.

I had felt as if the company were mine. Operationally, I had created it, hired all the people who hired all the people. I felt responsible. I signed a short-term consulting contract and agreed to conduct the search for my successor. They continued to woo me for the other position. During those final three months, in addition to offers of more money still, I was being invited to a lot of power breakfasts with colleagues from Virginia, all the others in my cadre of up and comers who had made it to director of operations and VP of sales. Jay liked the night life, everyone knew, so there were many late nights and restaurants and bars. At the last breakfast, I emerged from the hotel lobby with one of those VPs, my age, tall and JFK Jr. handsome. We paused as he lit our cigars.

“Jay,” he said. “Aren’t you gonna miss this?”

He expected, as they all did, that the missing would move me.

I gazed down the street at the U.N. and the East River beyond.

“Sure,” I said.

We never discussed what “this” was.

Then I was gone.

Within a few years, original two owners putting the company up for sale, CW bought rights to the international subsidiary’s name, moved to London, and created a worldwide network of independent expediters. It exists today. For fun, he opened a London wine bar. The parent company was sold to Airborne Express, where for twenty years, under its own name, it provided specialized courier service. A few years ago, DHL acquired it. Earlier, I had reason to learn that a decade after I left, no one had any idea who I was or knew who the people were that created the company.

Then B. wrote me. We started to catch up on twenty-five years. She wanted to know why I had disappeared. She got married, I said. A married woman with children in Virginia. A single man hundreds of miles away. Different lives.

“I know,” she said.

But she wasn’t completely satisfied, and it wasn’t the whole truth. The whole truth is that I leave all my lives behind, one imposter after another, working my way, I keep thinking, to the real me.

I remembered when we last saw each other. I visited soon after her first daughter was born. And I knew that soon after my return to New York I had received a card from B. It’s in one of the boxes that contain the memorabilia of all those lives. I haven’t seen it in years, but I know what it says. It says that I have to visit often, because B. couldn’t imagine her daughter growing up without knowing me.

She did.

She is older now than B. was when I met her.

Searching my memory, I thought I had to have been at B.’s wedding. There was no way I would not have been. Yet I had no recollection at all. The next morning, as if still, after so many years, anticipating my needs, I received an email from B. with two attachments: photos from her wedding.

In the first, one of those table shots, behind those in seats, three people stand. In the middle is B., her silken veil of waist-length hair a kind of talisman of her innocence and beauty. On one side of her is her new husband. On the other side is me. Once again, somehow, the imposter leads my life. I do not recall the moment. I do not remember the day. Yet that is my own self standing there, in one of those three pieces suits, taller and leaner than I remember anymore ever having been, already losing my hair, but still only balding, not yet bald. The hair that is there, and my beard, that I have worn since I was seventeen years old, is so dark it seems to have been inked in. I was once that young. I thought I was still.

Staring and staring, I don’t know what to make of a self I left behind, on a day I have forgotten, and I am reminded of poem I wrote as my mother disappeared into Alzheimer’s.

At that, we both turn to Katherine Hepburn, sixty years ago
and taut as a bowstring, wonder if the stars remember
every escapade and kiss, or if sometimes in the darkness
they sit and only stare
at some actor on the screen.

The second photograph shows a lineup of young men. I am among them, reaching forward, perilously balanced on one leg as I stretch my arm for something.

“What are we doing there?” I wrote and asked.

Lined up for the tossing of her garter apparently.

“Guess who caught it,” B. wrote.

That seems, in all the remembering, to be the question for me now. Or the beginning of many questions, the many questions that have preoccupied me in the weeks since B. first wrote: all the questions about the life that was, and was before, the life that is, and the life to come, and all of them beginning with “who.”

AJA

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Categories
Culture Clash On The Road

Writers Write

“Oh! It is only a novel! … only some work in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.”

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1818)

Jane Austen, Watercolour and pencil portrait b...
Image via Wikipedia

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On The Road

“The Poverty of Experience”

Another one of those particularly good posts at the Atlantic yesterday, this one from James Fallows, or more precisely, mostly from one of his readers. This has been my experience, too, in travel, that every place I visit is transformed from more than just another place in the world into a part of my life, another hometown about which I continue to care and always feel interest.

I had a remarkable conversation with a very savvy woman who lives very close to the poverty line. The fear and loathing about world travel was appalling from my perspective as a global traveler. I studied first from travel books and then on the internet most of my destinations before I arrived and was constantly astounded by the rich experience of taking myself to a foreign place. Upon returning this place was forever in my memory and I always read any mention of any country, region, city, neighborhood I visited. I learned that a short stop to change trains was better than reading about it; a half day was always a pleasure; overnight stays meant a foreign breakfast; a week meant site seeing and a month meant getting to know what time the water cart woke you up in the morning and where the best bakery was if you could find it.

The person I talked to will never experience the places I have been except when a bomb goes off in London/England/NotUSA or an earth-quake strikes Tokyo/Japan/NotUSA. The poverty of experience is the worst poverty. Lack of experience of the world NotUSA is poverty on stilts.

For another time: why almost all of my “how to fix America” plans include getting large numbers of young people outside the country for a period of months or years, so that early in life they can have experiences like those the reader describes.

via ‘The Poverty of Experience’ – James Fallows – National – The Atlantic.

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Categories
On The Road

Life in Motion

I drove the motor home down to San Diego for servicing yesterday for its final repairs and detailing in preparation for sale. It has been sitting in storage, and after driving it around the country for over a year, I hadn’t been behind the wheel for two months, since we moved out of it into our present digs. It was quietly exhilarating to have my foot on the pedal again, up high above the rest of the traffic, moving through a world that rose up to meet me on the face of a giant windshield like a panoramic movie screen.

The tow plane released, and we dipped and soared again in whispering silence, banking over the mountain sides of New England in the knowledge that only wind currents and geothermal waves prevented the sheer drop back to earth.

On the way south I passed along a stretch of Interstate 5 between San Clemente and San Diego designated the Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone Memorial Highway. Fans of  the HBO series The Pacific will recognize the name as that of “the hero of Guadalcanal,” the Pacific war’s first medal of honor winner, who after more than two years back home chose to return to combat at the head of fresh recruits he had trained himself, and who was killed in the first hours of the Iwo Jima landing leading his charges off the bloody beach. For a few years, Basilone was a famous, honored man in the United States. Today, very few drivers on that stretch of road know he was. I wouldn’t have known two months ago.

The service center is across the road from the Miramar Naval Air Station, which, if you are a Tom Cruise fan, you should know was the location of Top Gun, both the movie and the real thing flight school, until the latter was moved to Nevada. Now it is a Marine Corps Air Base. As I sped along the interstate on my approach, two fighters ascended my panoramic screen, splitting directions on their path out of view. Like most of us, I have flown commercially, of course – large planes, small planes, props. But what could ever have approximated what those fighter pilots experience in their rapid, wrenching loft over the earth? Nothing. Not the speed or the pressure on the body. But the motion, up and across the earth, so that one is able to lose a sense of containment on it, and in one’s life, and imagine instead some mastery over the geography diminishing in size below, and turning, in its relation to you, not because of its movements, but your own. Some people do get to live that grandest of illusions: the transcendence of boundedness by space, in place.

In the years when we took beach vacations along the Pacific in Baja, there was a local Mexican who built and sold ultra light airplanes and flew them along the coast between Rosarito and Ensenada. They are basically oversized tricycles with kite wings. I’d fly with him sometimes after he landed on the beach, maybe a thousand feet up, probably less – once, mistakenly only in my bare beach feet, which ached all the flight from the wind chill. But nothing could diminish the sense of release that the sky and the passing coast below could deliver. Once, over the Green Mountains of Vermont – I was holed up at the Vermont Studio Center on a grant for a month of poetry writing– my oldest friend, Arnie, and I were lifted into the sky by a tow plane, seated behind the pilot of a glider. The tow plane released, and we dipped and soared again in whispering silence, banking over the mountain sides of New England in the knowledge that only wind currents and geothermal waves prevented the sheer drop back to earth. Twenty years earlier my insides floated with fear as I sat pressed against what seemed the tissue-thin fuselage of the small prop plane in which I awaited my first jump. Then I shifted over the floor to the open cargo door and sat at its edge, New Jersey passing below as the wind blew me back. Count, one, two, three (don’t freeze with fear, don’t fail to launch) and push off. Fall. Spread. Tumble. Open shoot. Unwind the tangled lines above. Look around. Float. Why does silence always whisper?

Heaven.

It wasn’t just the motion in the motor home I loved during our travels. There were the motor scooters we carried along. The test monitor at the Department of Motor Vehicles, for our permits, before we left town, confided to Julia, “Just wait. He’s going to want a motorcycle very soon.” He was right.

A week or so later I’d be eyeing Santa Barbara through the windows of a hearse, which had picked up along the road two teen boys, and a girl who had fallen nude on acid into their laps at the Blind Faith concert the night before.

The last time I had been on a motorized two-wheeled vehicle, I was seventeen years old. Jerry, a friend two years older and twenty more daring, and who led me into many adventures and some trouble, possessor of a fringed suede jacket the likes of which was only otherwise seen on Roger Daltry during his Tommy years, and which was the envy of every freak from the East Village to Rockaway Beach, according to which Jerry became known as Jerry Jacket – Jerry had bought himself a motorcycle, bought it cheap, too, owing to its not having any brakes. Around midnight and the end of a weekday’s partying, everyone else preparing to crash back home, Jerry asked if I wanted to go see Ed Carlin’s new place in the Bronx. Whatever answer but “Sure!” even if it meant traveling ninety minutes over expressways, from the bottom of New York City to the top, riding a motorcycle with no brakes?

Jerry downshifted to slow all along surface streets of Queens, the Van Wyck Expressway, the Grand Central Parkway, and surface streets, again, of the Bronx, both of us dragging our Frye boots against the roadway to assist. We arrived to a sleepy residential neighborhood, our soles worn through, near 2 a.m. and climbed the garage over which Ed’s rental apartment in a private house was located. Jerry jimmied the window and we slipped through. We crouched and stared at Carlin’s gaunt, sleeping John the Baptist visage. Jerry nudged him, nudged him again.

“Carlin. Carlin, wake up.”

Ed opened his eyes.

Jerry smiled. “Got any dope?”

The next morning Jerry went off on some other escapade and I headed home by subway, two hours through Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, over Jamaica Bay to the Rockaway peninsula. The ride across the bay, past wetlands and inlets, over channel islands, in sight of JFK Airport, was always a reflective one for me. Even then I loved the motion of travel, and to think about life by its rhythms, and windows, any windows, car windows, bus windows, motor home, plane, and train windows were like a screen on which to project the footage of my memories, my anticipations, superimposed on the passing scene. Sad young man in search of adventure that I was, I preferred always to sit moving backwards, whichever way I was traveling, with a view of what I was leaving retrospectively, melancholically behind, even as I aimed myself with eagerness ahead.

Who's that barely keeping his head above water?

Some months after that motorcycle ride, still seventeen, I took my first plane flight, with a hundred and fifty dollars in my pocket I had earned over the summer, off on my California adventure with Arnie. A week or so later I’d be eyeing Santa Barbara through the windows of a hearse, which had picked up along the road two teen boys, and a girl who had fallen nude on acid into their laps at the Blind Faith concert the night before. Now, though, it was a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet, a big deal in flight at the time, and when the monster banked over Jamaica Bay, my throat caught with the fear we’d drop like a stone into the water. But we straightened out, and I settled in, and for five plus hours, my headset over my ears, my nose never left the window pane. I gazed at every quilted square of farmland, every coagulation of humanity and cement called a city, every lone car on a lonely road headed straight across a prairie or winding through some hills. Then we reached the Rockies. Months before, love had wounded me for the first time in my life. Three weeks later, I would stare up from the grass of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, a yearning seventeen year-old, and see a vision in the sky of all my decades to come, and how they might deliver me from pain, carry me into some kind of fulfillment it was too early on to know. All those years to live in which I might yet be happy.

But for those minutes in the plane, it was the Rockies in all their majesty and whiteness below , and in my ears it was “The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me.”

Joy rose up. I was in motion. I was going somewhere. And maybe love would.

AJA

Categories
On The Road

Gimme a Break

Or I’m taking one, anyway. Today, we begin the move out of the motorhome, out of storage, and into the new apartment. It is reorientation time. Then, next Sunday is my birthday. (I will be thirty-five. Or twenty-five. I forget. But either way I look much younger, and I have a head of hair like Rita Hayworth.) The morning after, I leave for Indian Wells in the California desert with my brother and nephew (a year closer in age to me than his mother, he is like another brother) for our yearly ritual of the BNP Paribas Tennis Open: four days of close-up Federer, Nadal, and Murray, dining and drinking, and the kind of non-stop New York wise-guy humor, in triplicate, that sets Julia longing for the sand hills of Nebraska.

It is a good time for a break. I’ve been blogging steadily since I began over fifteen months ago, and the timing is propitious for discovering exactly how out of control the world will spin without my commentary upon it. I’ll be back in about ten or eleven days. I hope you will be too. If you’re relatively new, the horizontal menu bar and the last couple of months’ archives, not yet added to it, are the places to explore in my absence, if you care to, so as not to have missed a word of my indispensable wit and wisdom.

Now, where was I…

AJA

Categories
On The Road

Landed

Julia and I took an apartment yesterday. Just over sixteen months ago we rented our home, uprooted nearly every element of our lives, and hit the road in our thirty-seven foot motorhome. We spent four days with the coach parked in front of our house moving about a half percent of what we own into it. I haven’t missed a thing. Of course, I didn’t give up my tenure. I simply took my sabbatical. And Julia didn’t sell her business, though she did take on a partner. (We’ll call him Deep Pockets.) But we did disconnect our lives and travel, just as we both love. Julia returned to Los Angeles periodically to teach classes at her school, while over twelve months, I returned for one night only, early on, to help close the deal with DP. I never wanted to come back. But I did have to teach again, and the Workshops finally required more complete attention from Julia. Everything ends. Everything transitions into something else.

For the past four months we have been living in RV parks around Los Angeles – whenever we could, right on the beach, right at the Pacific. However, the pleasures of motorhome living have been less without the daily excitement of travel and new places. The disruption to our lives became more pronounced. Most people who fulltime it – that’s what it’s called – are retired – you know, the gray-hairs everyone thinks of when they hear of motorhome travel. But those older RVers are not all fulltimers. Some are snow birds, heading south for the winter. The gray hairs are what Julia thought of when I first talked to her of motorhome travel well over a decade ago. I had some little experience, and already knew the joy.

Those older travelers are much misunderstood by the people who capture them in a cliché. On one of the countless occasions along the way that I observed some back-bent codger emerge from a forty-footer, and his maybe spryer but plumper spouse head for her own work in parking, setting up, maybe unhitching what’s called a fifth wheel, leveling it, and connecting it to the grid, I turned to Julia and said, You know they’re actually very impressive. Most people their age are rooted like plants in front of a television. These people are out there seeing the world, traveling the roads, engaging life with all they’ve got left. They’re something. And so they are.

One of the rich rewards of travel is the regular encounter with lives, kinds of lives, whole subcultures of which you would otherwise never have known. It’s like discovering new planets, populated planets, right there around the bend, over a mountain, deep in a wood. The fulltimers and the snow birds are two kinds of motorhome traveler, and there are many who are younger, younger than Julia and I, and the family vacationers with their kids. There are the people, too, old and not so old, who are not travelers, who are a different kind of fulltimer. The RV may be a twenty-year old motorhome worse for wear and time, or maybe a fifth wheel, up on its blocks, an apron around its base like a foundation to a house, a makeshift yard of chairs, tables, bird feeders crowding the site. There are many variations, but in each case, not in the resplendent motorhome resorts on lakes and oceans that are condoed and timeshared, but in the small, meager parks stuck back in the rural trees, tucked away on lots off the interstate, they may rent monthly for three or four hundred dollars, and they are not recreational or much of a vehicle, but they are a permanent home, twenty-five feet by ten or even eight, for someone old, or veteran, or attached to reality a little differently, and its better, by far, than a big-city street or some charity hotel, and you’ve got some propane for heat and maybe a pet and your own blue sky, and life is always a road to somewhere you didn’t know you were going.

So finally, for Julia and me, after sixteen months and no longer traveling, fulltiming became too much. She has this business to help guide, I have several book projects in progress and too long in coming, and life is joy if you can make it and let it be that, and if you are lucky, but it is also work, and we just need more space and to be settled again. We needed to land somewhere for awhile.

Among the oddly contradictory feelings of preparing to land, is my reluctance to give up the Allegro Bay, our motorhome, just as we prepare to sell it. (If you’re interested, by the way, the asking price is $125,000 for a 2009, with many extras and a Hydralift, hydraulic motorcycle lift, the best on the market and adaptable for an ATV, welded to the rear, an $8,000 value newly installed.) All my life, whenever talking with friends about the fantasy of wealth, I always said my definition of the kind of rich I’d like to be is the ability to travel wherever I want whenever I want. If you are intrepid and disentangled enough a person, that doesn’t have to be that monetarily rich. For me, though it doesn’t yet cross oceans, the motorhome, has been that freedom, that rich, and while I have longed these past couple of months to be landed, I feel, too, like a cowboy about to give up his horse.

Julia and I both love and embrace change. It comes to you anyway, and we make our own. Our apartment is little more than a mile from the home we own, still rented out, and which I never wanted to live in again when we left it. We expect to stay in the apartment for a couple of years, do some traveling by air and auto to continue our work in Indian country, and then see where the economy and work and circumstance have delivered us. We anticipate another year of motorhome travel in four or five years. This time around with only a very little experience driving RVs, I was reluctant to go above the 37 feet. Now I’ve driven through mountains and over narrow country roads and barreled along interstates amid crowds of trucks and trailers, and loved every second of it. Next time, I’m going 44 feet – the king size bed, the second bathroom, the kitchen island. (Some cowboy.)

We’ll see where we are in four or five years. We are all held out into our existential space, deep into the unfathomed universe. It is cold there, and dark, and in the very dead of night it is frightening. So we seek connection, in love and family and faith, in culture and tradition, in the comfort of habit and routine, as if to believe there is no wonder that anything, a tree or a walk in the park, is the way it is – even though we know our end is to separate from most or all of those connections.

In these final days before we move next week, I walk the dogs along the low bluffs of Playa del Rey, overlooking the Pacific. The ocean and the beach are my heaven, what I hope to see at my end, if not after. I grew up in several communities in New York City, but mostly in Rockaway Beach, a collection of communities, actually, along a peninsula in the Atlantic that many New Yorkers don’t even know is part of the city, or think is in Brooklyn, though it is Queens. My parents moved us there, twice, because they loved the seaside too.

My father, who was born in Ukraine, a cold and unforgiving clime – especially in the first half of the twentieth century, and before, for a Jew – loved three things in the world: his family, everything new and clean (because in his youth everything had been old and of the earth), and the sun. He worshiped the sun, and so he worshiped the beach, and on his restful Sundays, while his indolent children still slept, and when we didn’t live in Rockaway, he would make the drive to Jones Beach, farther out on Long Island, and lie for hours with a reflector, be home before we had risen yet. In the painful days after he died, and now, several years later, every time I sit on a beach, whenever I feel, simply, the heat of the sun on my skin – feel that the universe is not empty space surrounding me, but something touching me – I think of my father. In that inexplicable communion of heart and memory, I am my father.

My mother’s love of the sea was more melancholy, as she was. She loved to sit at her window beside the Atlantic on stormy days and watch a dark Caribbean mood travel up to New York’s southern shores. She swam in sorrows that were buoyed by the love of her family.

On the day before we took the apartment, I walked Homer and Penelope amid those kinds of stormy seaside colors. The ocean was steely beneath dark clouds, the wind blowing, the white caps churning, light, though not sun, cracking the clouds for contrast. On this day, thinking of beginnings and ends, and the distance in between, I was not my father but my mother. In contrast to seasides, mountains, and great plains, cities like New York are great works of imagination, architectural installations, stages of human drama, the worlds of the novel a reader enters to live on its streets and know the merchants and neighbors. But on a bluff above the ocean, one returns to the original creation. There is the sea, the sky, the land, where they all meet, and one can feel, originally, how one connects to them, to the sphere they embody, and what lies beyond.

I walked ahead of Penelope, who these days, no longer hunting in woodlands, does not forge maniacally ahead anymore, and followed behind Homer. When he was a puppy, Homer was frightened of the world itself. I had to pull him down the stairs of the three-story Venice loft we lived in then, and out the door, just to get him to do his business. He was not unlike the shy, timid, frightened child I was, who in my infancy, through a long week in the Catskills, would not go potty until my father drove up for the weekend to hold my hand.

Now Homer has seen the country and peed on it all. He was about my age when we left, our gray about the same, but is older than I am now, aging faster, though I’ll get there. On the Playa del Rey bluffs, he lumbered through the gusts ahead of me, each slow step rippling through his body to the hind haunches. He turned to look back at me, his eyes wondering.

“I’m coming,” I said.

AJA (photos from my Moto Q)

Categories
On The Road Photography

More Montevideo

This delayed contribution of student photos from Uruguay comes from Michaela Reisinger, a fourth-generation pharmacist from Austria. Nearly everyone else on this travel photo workshop had been on multiple trips with Julia (and me), but Michaela was new. Smart, witty, and gregarious, a lover of good food and drink, she instantly became part of the gang. You might say Michaela is the Austrian as Italian. 🙂 She had been to Buenos Aires before, where she has been studying tango for several years. When we left her, she had just found her apartment for a three-month stay of further dance study. One night in Montevideo Michaela lingered (with chaperon) at a milonga dancing tango until 5 a.m. She later explained to me the nature of the “come-hither” looks that are both effective and acceptable for a single woman searching for dance partners to cast at a milonga, and those that will have counter-productive, even comical results.

Here is Michaela’s account of her photos of the Umbandan seaside ritual I posted about earlier:

The pictures deal with the goddesses-offerings. There people bring flowers or something to eat, put it into small boats and send their offerings to the sea, hoping their prayers will come true. Also several enlightened people offer their straighter way to heaven. They are easily recognized by their dress code. To get these photos I followed the “boy with a flower” in the ocean as far as I could and was wandering later on.

Of course I could not resist the possibility to get my Aura cleaned and whitewashed again, because who knows what kind of dirt got caught over the years. I let it be done by and Australian woman. Despite that I could not really feel any difference. She gave me her business card secretly, whispering, if I want to know the real thing, I should call her. I really was considering that for a while. Then I saw her with several others consoling a pretty in pink. But to me it was more of an assault. So that’s how I felt being European; what must an American have thought?

To me the feast was very peaceful, despite a group of Brazilian healers, where the upper-upper-healer, looking like a white shrunken cowboy with an impressive black beard, was roughing up the believers a bit but he acted so fast that I was not able, despite all my skills I learned from Julia, to get one sharp photo. He is also one of the suspects I connect with the headless chicken I found the next day on the beach very nicely decorated. There was no blood-letting nor self-sacrifices, sorry.

AJA